During his studies as a Personal Finance major at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology, Ryan McGuire ’14 was convinced he found a good fit for a career as a certified financial planner. He wasn’t prepared for his perspective to expand tenfold once guest lecturer Mike Walther, founder and president of Oak Wealth Advisors, paid a visit to one of Ryan’s classes. Call it fate or good timing, the chance meeting permanently set a course for Ryan’s career.
At the time, Mike was one of a handful of financial advisors in the country working in special needs financial planning and one of the first in the country admitted into the Academy of Special Needs Planners. A trailblazer in an underserved market, Mike was passionate to share his work with emerging personal finance professionals, like Ryan.
“That was the first time I realized there was a specialty in financial planning that focused on serving clients who have children with a disability, like my own sister,” Ryan said.
“What Mike shared launched a personal mission for me to help families like mine, and to cut through all of the confusion and stress that you navigate when you are caring for a loved one with special needs.”
After the lecture, Ryan introduced himself to Mike, eager to network and stay in touch. Several years later, Ryan felt like it was time for him to dive into special needs financial planning full time, so he gave Mike a call. Today, Ryan works alongside Mike as a Senior Consultant and Director of Innovation at Oak Wealth Advisors.
“It was a full circle moment, and I feel fortunate that early in my career I knew the clients I wanted to work with,” Ryan said. “Looking back, it is special to see how all of this transpired. And, all the credit goes to my former professor Robert McCalla for having the foresight to bring Mike to our class.”
Finding a home in Human Ecology
Attending the School of Human Ecology not only connected Ryan with future employers, but also taught him skills to excel in internships and various financial planning roles.
“When I was a student in the Personal Finance program, I knew the information that I was learning was translating in real time to the industry I was about to join,” Ryan said.
The balance of technical and counseling psychology skills in coursework piqued Ryan’s interest and challenged him to think first and foremost as a human ecologist. He learned the importance of interpersonal communication and how it builds healthy relationships with clients who are tasked with highly emotional decision making.
Being human first is a crucial priority in financial planning. Fostering and maintaining a trusting relationship between client and advisor requires understanding a client’s story and how they’ve arrived to where they are today, and where they want to go.
“It makes complete sense that the Personal Finance program has its home in the School of Human Ecology,” Ryan said. “It’s the best school for the program, because to succeed in this role you need a genuine curiosity about people’s life stories and experiences, which is a strong human ecology concept. You can have the best technical advice to give, but it means nothing if you cannot connect on a human level.”
Cultivating connections and paying it forward
For Ryan, putting his human ecologist skills in action looks like providing proactive and responsive service to clients, compassionately answering questions and ensuring he spots financial opportunities.
“I might be talking about difficult subjects with clients, but I know how important it is to raise questions and create a space for these conversations,” Ryan said. “Often, talking through emotional subjects can help us discover better outcomes than what were originally planned.”
Along with typical financial and budgeting advice for investments and retirement planning, Ryan also dives into more niche areas. He has researched specialized camps for clients’ children — forging connections with camp administrations to learn about available resources and costs.
“Every day is different and exciting,” Ryan said. “It’s a rewarding and interesting twist on the traditional wealth management industry.”
In recent years, Ryan returned to the School of Human Ecology as an adjunct associate lecturer. A few semesters ago, Ryan spoke at a consumer science symposium about his experience in the special needs financial planning world. This time, Ryan was the inspiration for a Personal Finance student, who approached Ryan afterwards about internship opportunities. Once more, whether fate or good timing, that student, Aaron Osterberg, became a full-time associate at Oak Wealth Advisors after graduation and now works alongside Ryan.
“It’s a privilege to share my experience and have students come up to me interested about my career,” Ryan said. “Being able to assist in making connections and watching students and graduates succeed has been really fun!”
Ryan has followed his own advice for current and prospective Personal Finance students: Give guest lecturers and practitioners that come to campus a genuine listen, and introduce yourself.
“There’s an immense amount of career paths for Personal Finance majors,” Ryan said. “So take advantage of the great opportunities like internships, connecting with alumni and faculty — just one introduction can enlighten the path you choose to take.”